A few days ago, Rod Dreher posted a letter from one of his readers. The letter recounts the experience of a Millennial for whom a change of heart on the issue of same-sex marriage led to his departure from evangelicalism. Responding to Dreher’s contention that the arguments of same-sex marriage advocates are founded upon emotion, the letter writer counters that many Christian opponents of same-sex marriage ‘have traded in nothing but emotion for the last 30 years.’ He suggests that, having grounded their opposition to same-sex marriage solely in an unexamined disgust, the moment that young evangelicals have humanizing engagements with gay persons they are left without any argument against same-sex marriage and their Christian convictions are thrown into confusion.

Reflecting upon the letter, Dreher focuses upon the dangers of ‘dumbed-down emotivism,’ bemoaning the intellectual vacancy of many quarters of the Christian church. My purpose is that of peeling away some of the layers of Dreher’s analysis to reveal and reflect upon a deeper but overlooked dimension of evangelicalism’s identity that has a significant effect upon its responses to same-sex marriage. While Dreher highlights evangelicalism’s emotivism, I believe that there is a more fundamental issue to be identified. I will caricature evangelicalism somewhat in the remarks that follow. Nevertheless, as for any good caricature, I trust that the features, even if slightly exaggerated, will be immediately recognizable.

The governing story at the heart of evangelicalism is the conversion narrative. This may be a controversial claim to make about a movement that purports to be driven by the story of the gospel, but careful observation of evangelicalism’s dynamics provides much evidence for its truth. For evangelicalism, the ‘gospel’ is typically framed, not as Scripture frames it—as the historical story of God’s salvation accomplished in his Son through the public events of Christ’s incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, and his return in glory—but as the ‘story’ of how the sinful individual can be saved in the present. It is a story of how Christ can become an active part of my personal biography, rather than an historical account that stands apart from my biography, which I must enter as I die to myself and my old biography and become a part of Christ’s life. The difference may appear subtle, but it is immensely significant.

Evangelicalism’s foregrounding of the conversion narrative leads to a particular understanding of the formation of the Christian’s subjectivity. In a tradition that placed its primary accent upon the objective, historical narrative of God’s work in Christ, Christians’ subjectivity would principally be formed as they entered into a larger story outside of themselves and as this story shaped and identified them. By contrast, within evangelicalism, Christian subjectivity is effected chiefly from within, through the immediacy of the ‘conversion experience’.

Image-frozenchipmunk via Flickr (CCBY2.0)

Image-frozenchipmunk via Flickr (CCBY2.0)SourceLicense

With this understanding of genuine Christian subjectivity as arising from within comes a suspicion of the place of the objective, external, and institutional dimensions of Christian faith—of creeds, confessions, theologies, liturgies, sacraments, rites, churches, etc. Rather than being valued as means of spiritual formation and incorporation into the life of Christ and his people, they are viewed as a sort of dead shell that surrounds the internal, living reality of Christian faith, residing purely in the believer’s heart. Their sole value arises as they serve as means by which we express the spiritual life within us. The sacraments and institutions of Christianity cease to be regarded as acting upon us to form us into a living body and start to be seen as mere public expressions of our private faith. I am baptized, not so that I might participate in and by formed by the life and death of Christ and his body more fully, but in order publicly to declare my personal and private belief.

Evangelicalism places upon all within it a responsibility to fashion a spiritual identity from out of their own divinely-visited subjectivity. To be evangelical is to account for one’s identity from out of one’s own ‘born again’ spiritual experience and subjectivity and not in terms of membership or participation in some external institution or ritual. The typical evangelical narrative of conversion begins by establishing an antithesis between genuine Christian identity and ‘external’ identities—‘I was raised in a Christian home and grew up attending a gospel-believing church but…’ Rather than emphasizing an outward-looking affirmation of one’s belief in the truth and saving power of the historical events of the gospel and the reliability of God’s word and promise in the ‘external’ means of grace, the evangelical ‘personal testimony’ is principally concerned with presenting a detailed account of one’s arrival at a believing subjectivity. Evangelical identity is manifested and established through demonstrative piety, which is where the lure of emotionalism comes in.

By this point we may seem to have strayed far beyond relevance to the original question. However, the significance of these reflections becomes more apparent when we recognize that this evangelical account of Christian identity finds noteworthy analogies in LGBT communities.

For LGBT persons, one cannot truly be defined by the objective reality of one’s body and its natural relation to the other sex, but one’s identity arises as a subjective achievement. The autonomous authority over against all other interpreters claimed by the sexual subject in his self-identification finds a parallel in the presumed independence of many evangelical readers of Scripture from all external authorities represented by creeds, confessions, traditions, Church teaching, and congregational reading.

Marriage is presented as the way that couples publicly express their love for one another, rather than a public institution that places demands and identities upon us and our communitiesWhile most persons receive their identity from without as society imposes its sexual and gendered identities, the LGBT person recognizes that true identity arises from within. The realization of an authentic subjectivity over against the formalism of imposed norms of gender and sexuality is recounted in the ‘personal testimonies’ of coming out stories and tales of transition. Given the understanding of the nature of true identity that exists within LGBT communities, it should not surprise us that same-sex marriage has been pursued chiefly as an ‘expressive’, rather than a ‘formative’ and ‘institutional’ reality. Marriage is presented as the way that couples publicly express their love for one another, rather than a public institution that places demands and identities upon us and our communities, irrespective of our internal states.

As both so elevate the subjectivity and personal ‘story’ of the individual as the defining factor in identity and share a resistance to the ‘external’ determination of identity, evangelicals and the LGBT community have an ironic affinity. The content may radically differ, but the form of identity has great similarities. This affinity has considerable implications for understanding the character of evangelicalism’s response to LGBT persons and to same-sex marriage. The following are three areas where the effect of this affinity can be felt.

First, evangelicalism lacks a robust account of institutions. It is ill-equipped to mount a strong defense of marriage when its own fundamental understanding of institutions has much in common with that of the LGBT community. If institutions are chiefly means by which we express our personal narratives and subjectivities, rather than larger ‘narratives’ that we enter, to which we subject ourselves, and by which we are formed, the case against same-sex marriage is a much weaker one. Evangelicalism has long had a fraught relationship with institutions and their claimed authority over the individual and their spiritual consciousness. Placed in the position of having to defend an institution such as marriage, it lacks the requisite conceptual tools and categories.

Second, when a movement finds its centre of gravity in individual subjectivity, it will face either the risk of a brittle bigotry, asserting the superiority of its own mode of subjectivity over all others, or a soft relativism, within which all subjectivities are treated as independent guardians of their own individual ‘truth’. Evangelicals have typically been tempted to the former. However, such a posture is difficult to sustain when one encounters well-intentioned people of radically different perspectives. The moment that genuine empathy occurs, it becomes very hard to sustain such a position. Young evangelicals are exposed to the subjectivities of LGBT persons in a way that their parents were not. As their initial bigotry crumbles (as it should) there is often nothing else to fall back upon.

Third, the LGBT community and the same-sex marriage cause are advanced in large measure through emotional personal testimony and stories of subjective self-realization. This is the language that evangelicals were raised upon and it can resonate with us. Evangelicals, having placed so much store upon the truth and the immediacy of the personal narrative and the value of unfeigned emotion, will face particular difficulties in considering how to respond to these.

In responding to movements that are deemed to be unchristian within our culture, our habitual posture is one of direct and forceful rejection. We perceive our duty within such engagement solely to be that of defending the truth against error. In adopting such an approach, I believe that we miss one of the chief purposes of such challenges in God’s providence. In sparring with opposing positions, we can uphold the truth. However, we can also develop new strengths and, more importantly, can discover our own compromising weaknesses.

As evangelicals respond to the LGBT movement, I hope that we will do so self-reflectively. This is an opportunity to learn uncomfortable lessons about ourselves, to discover how our ‘truth’ can rely upon little more than brittle bigotry, to discover how we have marginalized God’s story for the sake of our own, and how we have lost sight of the blessing and authority of institutional means of Christian and social formation. As we come to a realization of the faults in others, we may find that we are seeing a mirror image of the faults in ourselves.


20 Comments

  1. I think individualism is, in fact, a prevalent error in our society. I really want to agree with this article. But I feel that the equation of GLBT=individualist is highly problematic. As a heterosexual man it may not be my place to make the following points, but here goes:

    If the LGBT is a “movement,” by definition it already shares much of what you attribute to tradition. Those who identify with our current sexual revolution (i.e. the increased public awareness of gay and lesbian individuals, the recent victories for gay marriage, &c.) aren’t acting only as individuals, right? The entire Civil Rights narrative is a communal one, of oppressed groups banding together to insist that society must provide a place and dignity to all its members. To argue for gay rights is to see oneself as a member of a long history of struggles, rooted in the vaguely theistic concept “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that these include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Indeed, the “coming out” narrative is almost always explicitly NOT personal, or at least not entirely personal. “Coming out” is courageous not because one is seeking individual fulfillment, but because in “coming out” one can increase the larger visibility of queer people in society.

    While I as a Christian am a bit skeptical about “the pursuit of happiness” (and even more skeptical about Locke’s “life, liberty and property”), I can’t see recent versions of the LGBT movement as solely about individual experience versus institutional authority. It seems we have two different traditions with vastly different visions of how sexuality works. In the Evangelical camp, we have perhaps the most intensely heterosexual and marriage-worshipping version of Christianity in history–a Christianity without monasticism, without any positive role for celibate folks over the age of 25, without any conception that having a family might limit one’s ability to serve the Gospel, and without much in the way of restrictions on heterosexual divorce. In the gay rights camp, we have narratives of a society benefiting when human rights overcome prejudice–if we became a better nation by allowing black people to have (more or less) rights equal to white folks, why not let gay people enter into the commitment of marriage? Both are balancing the good of society with the good of the individual, though the average member of either camp probably has a thoroughly inconsistent personal philosophy.

    In this environment, it seems pretty weak to say that if we just go back to a reliance on institutional or communal loyalty, when Christian institutions are remarkably insensitive to the demands of the Gerald Manley Hopkins or Wesley Hills of the world. I do want Christians to interrogate the corrosive influence of an all-powerful individuality, but I don’t think this is necessarily going to be the key that allows us to rightly love our GLBT brothers, sisters, or neighbors.

    1. “As a heterosexual man it may not be my place . . . the ‘coming out’ narrative is almost always explicitly NOT personal, or at least not entirely personal.”

      While I agreed with some of the things you said, I think that you missed the mark on this bit. As someone who has had the experience of coming out, I can say that this take on coming out is not representative of my experience or the experience of most LGBTQ folks I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. You might be able to get away with saying “not entirely personal,” but that’s a pretty good description of pretty much everything people living in a society do. So, while I understand that your intentions were good, I think your initial thought of “it may not be my place” was pretty much spot-on in respect to giving an account of what it means/entails to come out.

    2. Thanks, Jake, for your comment. I spoke hastily and incorrectly, but I probably also thought incorrectly. In retrospect, my life experiences for a variety of reasons have meant that my observation of friends and relatives coming out was exceedingly atypical.

      I should’ve thought that one through more.

  2. Correction to first sentence of last paragraph: “it seems pretty weak to say that we should go back…”

  3. Hi Alastair –

    A really interesting, thoughtful perspective. I would challenge your fundamental assertion, especially as it relates to people who are gay.

    You write: “Marriage is presented as the way that couples publicly express their love for one another, rather than a public institution that places demands and identities upon us and our communities, irrespective of our internal states.”

    I don’t think that’s true. Even if marriage is often characterized by the general population as a private expression of affection, the substance of the institution is unchanged. This particular expression of love requires a vow of a lifetime fidelity and mutual care-taking, it is made in front of a community of supporters, and it carries an implicit expectation that this couple will now function in their community as a family unit. While you may be correct that we are becoming more individualistic in our paradigm for marriage (and myriad other aspects of society), that doesn’t change the essential nature of the institution. That is why, I believe, we’ve seen a rise in unmarried but committed couples.

    In regards to couples who are gay (including me and my husband), it’s a fundamental misunderstanding to say that we are just looking at marriage solely as a socially recognized expression of our love. That’s like saying women suffrage had nothing to do with the desire of women to participate in society, but rather was driven only by a desire for equality. Allowing gay couples to participate in marriage does not degrade the institution any more than woman suffrage degraded democracy.

    Gay couples want to bind our lives to our spouses’ and forge a new life together, fully participating in, and supported / held to account by, our families and our various communities. That’s why the personal testimony of gay couples is so potent. The reality is that our marriages have existed for generations – contributing to our world as a family unit. It’s hard to look at these stable, loving families and say that they are of worthless or a danger to society.

    I think society’s questions to the conservative Christian church are these: Can you see covenant gay relationships as something other than immoral and inferior? Can traditionalists look into the lives of a gay family and see virtue?

    My best to you,
    David

  4. This needs to be rewritten and thought through a little better.

    Any thinking christian agrees the western church is overly individualistic and Evangelicals response to LGBT movement has been poor and not nearly nuanced enough.

    But you seem to be suggesting a catholicizing of the church. Has that really worked? Entire countries in south america are LOST solely because of the catholic church. More to the point, the catholic church’s response to LGBTs has been just (if not more) awful than American evangelicals.

    “The governing story at the heart of evangelicalism is the conversion narrative.” Lol. Are you reading your bible apart from academia and allowing it to shape your worldview? Every time Jesus opened his mouth he talked about the conversion narrative.

    C– on this paper. Write it again.

    1. Embracing the larger story of Christ’s work instead of focusing primarily on my own experience of that work is not “Catholic” concept.

  5. Another thought:

    I wonder if evangelicals’ reliance on the conversion narrative actually shaped the reparative therapy model that was prominent for so long. When “conversion” is your primary sacrament, then the way those experiencing ssa receive grace is through sexual “conversion.” Emphasizing the larger story of Christ and His work throughout time takes the pressure off the individuals to change. They may never experience “conversion” but they can live lives of fruitfulness and faithfulness.

    1. Good points Hannah

      It is kind of amazing to me how little people use actual scripture in their responses to this topic though. Does our emphasis give people the power to change? Does the church? The new testament actually says the power to change is in the GOSPEL. Because the Gospel IS the power of God. (Romans 1:16).

      “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice …. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind …” -romans 12

      I just don’t see God’s word anywhere “[taking] the pressure off the individuals to change.”

      “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.” -luke 5

      Our desires are not holy, as if they need to be respected and given in to. Our desires are wicked. Any thinking with regards to this topic that isn’t rooted in scripture is chaff and will be burned away.

      Glad we can have this dialog

    2. Andrew–

      When I said that it “takes the pressure off,” I was speaking about the pressure to change sexual orientation. The structures of evangelicalism forced LGBT folks to reconcile their struggles via sexual conversion instead of intimate fellowship with Christ and fidelity to the gospel. In many ways, the gospel was very much absent from the conversation having been replaced by an emphasis on human will and the goal of heterosexuality. (“Conversion”)

      I completely agree with you that the gospel is the source of our life–“in Him we live and move and have our being” after all, but I don’t think this piece is arguing otherwise. The question is how we are engaging the gospel–are we engaging it primarily through our own experience or are we engaging it by focusing on the truth that transcends our experience? When we emphasize our own experience, our hope will only be as stable as our own experience. In the dark times of doubt and questioning (here, those wrestling with ssa), we need something more stable than our experience.

    3. Hi Hannah,
      You say:
      “In the dark times of doubt and questioning (here those struggling with ssa), we need something more stable than our experience.”

      I would offer two points. First, the bible never calls us to discount our own experience. Our experience is the fruit of our belief. I agree that we are called to faithfully discern and follow God’s will. That discernment process necessarily includes experience and internal perspicuity along with traditional doctrine. It is sinful to grasp our orthodoxy tightly. A life of rules following is the opposite of a life in faith.

      Second, you seem to be dismissing out of hand Christians like me who have reconciled our faith and sexuality.

      I don’t struggle with same sex attraction. My sexuality is a beautiful gift from God. We are created as relational beings. The human condition is not different for people who are gay. Traditionalist theology demands that people who are gay live contrary to God’s creative intention. That is the obvious cause of any struggle. The traditionalist demand of gay people is a heavy , cumbersome load indeed.

      There are many, many faithful Christians who are gay. I encourage you to embrace rather than exclude us.

    4. David,

      First, thanks for you candor and willingness to engage in discussion.

      Second, I completely agree with you that God has made us relational beings and that desire is a significant part of who we are. I think the tension lies in interpreting our own desires and discerning what are legitimate ways to pursue relationships. For example, regardless of where we diverge on the LGBT question, I think we both would agree that fidelity in marriage is an essentially Christian virtue. I may be long to be with another man, but my faith teaches me that I cannot break my vows to my husband. I must doubt that desire.

      So the question for me is how do I reconcile my desire and my faith when they conflict? You say that you have reconciled your sexuality and faith, and I do not doubt this in the least. However, for those with ssa and who consider themselves evangelical (traditionalist, to use your term), you must recognize that there is still a vast and profound struggle.

      You ultimately found peace by embracing experience as a means of revelation and truth. You believe that your sexuality has been given to you as a means to know yourself and express yourself. This is precisely the point of the article. How do we understand the struggle between our own experience and what the Church (historically and globally) has, by and large, not affirmed?

      Please understand. I do not intend to minimize your process — I know it did not come lightly or without soul-searching–but it is one that relied on your personal experience to reconcile the internal and external tensions.

    5. Hi Hannah,

      Thank you too for your willingness to engage. I always appreciate a chance to understand other perspectives better.

      I wholly agree that gay Christians who are pursuing chastity through celibacy face an immense struggle. I personally believe their suffering is both unnecessary and unjust, but I am often inspired by their faith and desire for holiness.

      I believe that God’s will is generative, not destructive. I fully agree that fidelity in marriage is a Christian virtue (and a non-Christian virtue for that matter). Infidelity is destructive. I believe that the traditional sexual ethic is also destructive. The harm it has wrought is undeniable. It has led to suicide and suffering.

      Not for nothing, not all evangelicals subscribe to the traditional sexual ethic. There are accommodating and affirming Christians in conservative traditions.

      I’ll push back gently on your presumptions about my process. Yes, I had to reconcile the tension between my beliefs and my lived experience. That’s obviously personal. But the first place I turned was scripture and scholarship. And my personal work of discernment is aligned with the discernment process that is happening in the Church. It was not just an internal experience.

      With due respect and charity, you did minimize my process of discernment and by extension the belief I’ve come to. I would encourage you to continue to discern God’s will for people who are gay and our place in the Church.

      My sincere best to you
      David.

    6. David–

      I assumed that your conclusions were derived through a process within a community and yes, even through literature and sacred text. I’m not so naive as to believe that Christians don’t differ on this topic. But in the end, the tipping point is personal experience. This is undeniable.

      Can I also gently suggest that you remember that not all who differ with you do so out of ignorance? I have wrestled through a similar process as you in my attempt to understand my LGBT brothers and sisters and faithfully love them even in the midst of disagreement. I do not say this to honor myself but to point out that the tension surrounding LGBT issues is not simply felt by those with ssa–I regularly feel torn by my desire to affirm my friends’ choices and yet remain faithful to my faith as I understand it.

      I recognize that this could be alleviated by moving from a traditionalist stance. But isn’t that exactly the issue that this article is addressing? In order to affirm LGBT identity, we must move from a traditional reading, hence all those who are leaving evangelicalism and the church over this very issue.

      Again, I’m grateful for your measured words and the time you have taken to engage with me.

    7. Hi Hannah –

      I think at this point, I risk wearing out my welcome in this conversation. I’m going to take that risk because there’s something I still don’t understand in your perspective.

      If tradition flows from group discernment of the Church over time, doesn’t it necessarily begin with the spiritual and lived experience of individual believers? At what point would you say it’s OK to move away from traditional understandings? When can the group revelation be trusted? Or is tradition the same thing as eternal Truth and should never be questioned or altered? Does depravity always render our individual experience meaningless? I’m not just thinking about the lives of gay people here, but it’s probably a pretty good basis for the discussion.

      And what about when our beliefs themselves are in conflict. The traditional doctrine has caused demonstrable injury to people who are gay (as well as their families and communities). Is it morally permissible and/or required for the church to knowingly cause harm as an act of faith?

      It’s hard to communicate in written form – and questions can come off as assertive (or maybe even passive aggressive). Please know that these are sincere questions as I’m seeking to understand your perspectives.

      Thanks in advance for helping me here.
      David

    8. I don’t find your comments passive aggressive in the least; in fact, they home in on the root of this whole divide. How do we discern truth? How do we factor our own experience into that process?How do we know where our depravity ends and our restored humanity starts? Historically the Church has been “the pillar and ground of truth” but what happens when the Church does not speak with a unified voice?

      We have the record of history–the canon, the creeds and councils–but we are also wrestling through living in a fractured Church (and no I’m not Catholic–unaffiliated baptist actually). I don’t think this means truth is unattainable but that there will be a great deal of division as we proceed toward lives of faithfulness to the gospel. I expect this.

      Traditionalists (and I’m using the term here not in a pejorative sense but in the sense of classic orthodox positions about core doctrine) root their understanding of human sexuality, not simply in a set of “clobber passages,” but in an overarching, encompassing understanding of imago dei that is central to the narrative of Christianity. So, yes, in this sense, they are relying on what they consider to be Eternal Truth about the nature of human existence. What I’m arguing for is a robust, nuanced understanding of personhood and sexuality–one that acknowledges the fallenness of our desires but that at the same time does not reduce us to our desires.

      I appreciate the depth of this conversation and your willingness to engage it in. I don’t think we will convince each other, but I’m grateful for the chance to dialogue in a way that does not fall into pettiness.

    9. Hi Hannah,

      First, I don’t mean to use “traditionalist” in a pejorative way. I would classify my beliefs as “revisionist” which I suppose could also be used in a pejorative way. My sincere apologies if my use of that vernacular caused offense.

      Second, heart-felt thanks for this exchange. Your willingness to dig deeper into these difficult questions about our convictions is very appreciated. I look forward to our next discussion.

      I wish you peace.
      David.

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